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The "Bubbles" experiment - What is contemporary music worth?

61978 Views 2164 Replies 70 Participants Last post by  Forster

I would like to introduce you to an exciting experiment that I discovered.

It's about the Dutch composer Alexander Comitas. He wanted to test whether the modern atonal art music, which is usually promoted nowadays, can be distinguished from hitting random keys on the piano.

For this purpose he "composed" a piece called "Bubbles" by letting his young children, who had no musical education, play random notes on the keyboard. In the end, the children only divided the notes among the instruments. However, the composer did not tell anyone how the piece was made.

And indeed: Alexander Comitas received a grant of 3000 € for this composition! The jury, which consisted of a composer, a musicologist and a conductor, found the piece to be of high quality and even better than the previous (mostly tonal) compositions by Comitas.

You can take a closer look at the story under the following links:

'Bubbles' and Beyond: An Ongoing Musical Saga (Aristos, March 2013)

And here the composition Bubbles:

What do you think about this? I find the experiment very exciting, as it confirms what I had been thinking for a long time: A lot of modern classical music can hardly be distinguished from random notes.
I have seriously studied the composition methods of modern composers like Boulez, but came to the conclusion: No matter how "structured" these compositions seem on paper, they are irrelevant to the listener, since these structures are simply not audible.

However, instead of criticizing these compositions constructively, advocates of atonal music are often amazed at the "complex" and "innovative" structures of the compositions - even if they do not exist, as the Bubbles experiment shows.

I think that such experiments should be performed more often so that it becomes clear that the avantgarde mentality is causing damage to modern classical music and hindering the development of new music that actually relates to the way humans perceive music.

What do you think?
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Well as Jim intimates, the inner workings are vital for the composer, especially when working in expanded tonality and atonality. The processes used yield the expression and the listener needs to be able to listen in a different way when a tune is not present. The structures aren't ordinarily meant to be discernible and the impression of randomness although understandable from a superficial pov, is often an illusion based on unfamiliarity or aversion.
But what is the point of having structures if they are not audible? If the structure of music can't be heard isn't the result effectively perceived as unstructured / chaotic / random sounding music?

As always, some listening effort is often rewarded with a deeper understanding and appreciation, as many a TC'er here will testify.
The question is how reliable such accounts are. In this case a composer, a conductor and a musicologist (people who should be experts in the field) found appreciation for bubbles. Does this make the piece good?

I don't actually like that kind of music much but I do find the idea that "modern atonal music is what usually gets promoted nowadays" to be interesting. Did he step out of a time machine from 1965?
Bubbles was actually made in 2005. Comitas made the piece as a reaction to the fact, that in the Netherlands composers who don't conform to the atonal aesthetic are mostly denied funding.
Bubbles was supposed to showcase the absurdity of this mentality.

From my experience the situation is similar in other western european countries. It may be different in America though.
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^ Ah, so he was responding to a "conspiracy" by the evil followers of contemporary music to put a stop to the new and innovative.
How is atonal music new and innovative? It has been around for over 100 years.

Also, I don't think this is about "stopping" atonal music. Rather the intention is to promote a mentality of Artistic Freedom, instead of forcing composers to adopt a specific, arbitrarily chosen aesthetic to receive funding.

I imagine he will have harmed his own reputation as a serious artist but perhaps that wasn't worth preserving?
The composer showed that the jury would rather fund a deliberately bad atonal piece instead of earnestly composed tonal pieces. This shows that there may be legitimate problems with the funding process. I don't think that demonstrating issues should harm anybody's reputation.

Also, as far as I understood, this stunt actually helped Comitas and a fellow Composer to receive funding again.
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Audible to whom? I wonder what proportion of the audience for, say, Beethoven's 6th, can recognise, name and describe the effect of sonata form?
A lay listener probably cannot name sonata form correctly, but they can certainly hear it.

Lets take for example Mozart Symphony 40, 4th Movement:

At the moment the 2nd theme starts, the listener notices that this is a different section of the piece: It's a completely different melody from the 1st theme and also as a much brighter, sweeter mood, which is the result of changing to the relative major key!

In the development section one can clearly hear that it is based on the motive from the first theme. Also, one can hear that this theme is imitiated in the various voices. The increasingly dense contrapuntal texture along with the chromaticism give this sections a more intense and dark mood which is common for development sections.

Once the the recapitulation starts the 1st theme is played again the same way as in the exposition, hence it is easily recognisable as such (which is helped by the fact that it is a quite catchy and memorable theme).
However as the recapulation continues one quickly notices that it is different from the exposition: Instead of moving to a brighter, more cheerful mood, the 2nd theme retains the sad mood of the 1st theme - which is the result of being assimilated to the home key of g minor.

So yes, the structural devices of sonata form are indeed audible to non-musicians. Maybe not every detail, but certainly the most defining aspects.

If they can't, does the symphony suddenly become chaotic?
No. Even if we assume that sonata form can't be heard, the piece still won't sound chaotic. This is due to the fact that sonata form is only one of many aspects of classical music's highly structured nature.

The others are the rules of common-practice tonality: Diatonic scales (major/minor keys), Triadic harmonies (major / minor chords), Harmonic Syntax (cadences, modulation rules), and voice leading rules (resolution of dissonances).
All this things work together to give the music a distinct, structured and non-random sound.

I would argue that simply following the rules of common practice tonality almost inevitably yields highly structured sounding music, which may be the reason why it has survived for so long.
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Maybe I didn't read a post fully but I did not understand the "experiment" to be about atonality - music that is not at all random and is (as you say) widely understood these days - but music that is more contemporary and not so widely familiar.
As far as I understood composers who don't conform to an atonal aesthetic were denied state funding in the Netherlands. But I am not the composer in question so I may be wrong about the details.

Also, atonal music is in theory not random but it is often perceived as such, as it is often low in audible structural constituents compared to earlier compositional approaches. Comitas highlighted this fact by showing that even professionals in the field cannot tell the difference between a genuine atonal piece and a non-musicians improvisation.

This suggests the possibility that at least some of the praise atonal composers receive could actually be the result of a musical placebo effect.

It is you that is linking this to atonality whereas from what you suggested above that is not your target. I did get that you are one of those who perceive an academic conspiracy and feel it was exposed by the silly experiment. Conspiracy theorists do tend to attract attention and supporters from those feeling a little lost.
I've never mentioned a conspiracy. A conspiracy would entail that someone is acting in secrecy. However, as far as I understood the review panels in several countries openly admit that they only want atonal music to receive state funding.
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Can they? Are you a lay listener? I suspect not. You'd need to sample some lay listeners to be able to verify your assertion.
I am not a lay listener anymore, but I used to be one. And even back then I noticed the things I mentioned in regards to Mozarts Symphony 40. It's actually not much different from noticing the chorus in a pop song. I mean, if you hear the recapitulation of the 4th movement, do you really feel that you are listening to a different melody than the one from the beginning?

I've also made similar experiences with other lay listeners. For example I once composed a piano piece in the mixolydian mode. A non-musician remarked "This is really good, it sounds a bit like that song by Ariana Grande!". Then I listened to the Ariana Grande song and the only similarity I noticed was that it also used the mixolydian mode. So the lay listener noticed the distinct sound of the mixolydian scale despite not understanding what it is in technical terms. It's the same e.g. when a Mozart symphony modulates to the relative major: The mood gets brighter, sweeter, more festive - the lay listener may not understand that this is caused by a key change but they can comprehend it psychologically.

This means that the structural constituents of traditional tonality and their distinct sonorities can be recognised by non-musicians, even if they don't comprehend it theoretically.

Speaking from my own experience as a relatively experienced lay listener, I could neither name nor hear 'sonata' form until it had been pointed out to me. But, as you quite rightly point out, there are other structures that any interested listener can hang on to to help make sense of a symphony.

Consequently, your assertion that without 'structure' there is chaos does not stand up.
I don't understand your reasoning. You seem to be contradicting yourself.
You have just admitted yourself that classical symphonies make sense because "there are other structures that any interested listener can hang on to to help make sense of a symphony."

Consequently if these structures didn't exist, the symphony would be perceived as chaotic / random sounding.

Of course, all true. but not all music requires these sorts of structures to be enjoyable, though that inevitably brings up the question of the definition of classical music, and I suspect your definition might be narrower than mine.
Sorry for my sloppy wording, I actually meant EARLY classical music.

However what I said also applies to some later developments in classical music, e.g. to impressionism, which sometimes uses different scales than common-practice-tonality (e.g. pentatonic scales, whole tone scales, spanish scales) but that are no less distinct sounding.
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I think we're both having difficulty. You said:

We both acknowledge that actually, there are 'structures', plural, that can help the listener, but in any case, my point was whether they could be heard.
If they can help the listener, then of course they can be heard. I don't see how the listener can get help from something if he does not notice it.
This is a curious loop. The 'if is all important. If they can't be heard, they can't help, can they?
Exactly. That would be like following the advice of a person you cannot hear.
Which leaves us where we were. You have greater confidence than I do that the lay listener will hear these structures.
Can you pinpoint the errors in my reasoning? I'm genuinely curious because I considered my points critical to demonstrate the difference in audibility between the structures in Common-Practice-Tonality and Atonal music.

Oh, and structureless music need not sound chaotic.
Interesting take. Can you provide examples? I actually thought that chaos was by definition a lack of structure.
I watched the entire Bubbles video and came to the following conclusions:

2. It is entirely possible, and maybe even probable, that the board has a priority to encourage works of a forward-looking nature as opposed to funding works that do not plow new artistic or stylistic ground.
That does not seem probable to me. I mean, how is Bubbles a forward-looking piece? Does it really plow new stylistic ground?

3. The process with which he created the work falls entirely within the accepted method of composition. The raw material was developed through improvisation by his children, but improvised music has provided the foundation of musical works for centuries.
I get what you mean, there are pieces like Schumann's ABEGG-Variations, where he just mapped a person's name to musical notes and then used it as a motive. However, in these cases the 'random find' is just a small part of the composition, as the development of the motive and its harmonisation is mediated by the composer's craftmanship.

In the case of Bubbles, however, the 'random find' is literally the entire composition. There is no conscious musical structuring to speak of.
Then you did not watch the video since the composer described in detail all of the manipulation he applied to the raw material (you also must not have read my other post which specifically outlines the compositional process he used). What he did was very similar to the example of Schumann you cited.
I'm sorry but that's not correct.

I recommend you to watch the first video again, to pay attention to the Raw Material that he plays and to compare it to the finished music in the second video. The movements sound, despite the changed instrumentation, almost identical. So the composer clearly didn't do anything significant to change them.

As he explains in the first video, most of the things he did (double note values, bar lines) only make the score more readable and professional looking without actually changing the music.

The only exception is indeed the 3rd movement. Here the composer applies the retrograde plugin which causes the entire movement to be played backwards. This makes the movement in fact even more random sounding than it already is. He thought that this randomness would create an increased vibe of "complexity".

So no, this can absolutely not be compared to what Schumann does. Schumann composed music, Comitas made a score look pretty. I think we can believe that this piece is indeed just a child's improvisation.
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Perpetuating fraud intentionally in order to accuse everyone else of being fraudsters is less an argument and more just exploiting the concept of good faith.
But I don't think that this is about exploiting good faith. If the jury had good faith they would have also funded the other compositions by Comitas, yet they didn't. I think this indeed shows that the jury was strongly biased towards atonal music, to the point that they preferred random noise over a product of genuine craftsmanship.
I initially thought that too, but I was wrong. The publishers of Comitas' 2013 article say that they are "critical of both modernism and postmodernism." They oppose "the increasingly bizarre and inscrutable work promoted in the name of art since the early years of the twentieth century." (source: So we're going back at least 100 years, not only 50. To quote San Antone, this may be the biggest "red herring" to grace TC forum, and I've come across quite a few in my time.
But I honestly don't see what's wrong with the sentences you've quoted. Being critical of modernism and postmodernism is a good thing, because it means you want to form your own opinion instead of blindly complying to dogma.

I think that some modernist ideologies have every right to be criticised, for example several modernist composers spread the belief that anything that somehow resembles tonal music is not appropriate in modern times. Boulez went so far as avoiding minor sevenths because they reminded him of dominant seventh chords.
Milton Babbitt critizised Lowell Liebermann for putting a perfect fifth in the bass, as it reminded him too much of older music. He begged him to substitute it with a more dissonant tritone instead etc..

I don't think that these ideologies are conducive to a healthy development of the artistic medium, so I don't see why we shouldn't be critical of them.
i.e. I think any focus on "bringing back craft to music" will lead to an unavoidable place where we decide that it was OK for Beethoven, Berlioz, Debussy, Stravinsky etc to violate the rules but not anyone past that, and there's little justification for that other than market appeal and personal taste.
I don't think that's correct. You seem to be confusing "craft" with "following rules". Those things are not related. Craft simply means to show skill. You can show skills both in old rulesets, like e.g. Mozart did, and in new ones like Debussy did.

However, I think in order to demonstrate craft in a ruleset, the rules themselves must be craftfully designed.

An example is Debussy: He broke the rules (or rather, established new rules), by introducing the whole tone scale and emancipating the augmented triad. This does not conform with the traditional rules of Common-Practice-Tonality, yet his pieces using the whole tone scale can be considered as craftfully composed. That's because these new rules produce music that sounds distinct, purposeful, structured and expressive and is perceived as such by the listener. (maybe it wasn't immediately perceived as such when it was new, but audiences eventually did understand it)

For comparison, if Debussy composed "Bubbles" then he would also break the rules, but in a way that is completely lacking in craft. That's because you need absolutely no skill to make random music. Literally anybody can do it. The result would be lacking creative, structural and expressive substance and thus wouldn't have made Debussy a great composer.
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If you want craft, you want pop music.
But what kind of craft does pop music demonstrate? The craft to exhaust the formal, emotional, expressive and creative potentials of music? Or the craft to make teenagers sing along?
If "postmodernism" is responsible for the breaking down of cultural hierarchies, I see it as a very good thing. These biases, along with the more toxic prejudices, need to go away if we have any hope of establishing a just and compassionate society.
But apparently hierarchies are not breaking down and biases don't go away.

If anything the opposite is happening: Hierarchies are being inverted instead of broken down (with Popular culture now being at the top of the hierarchy) and biases are getting stronger (against 'high art'): Most people my age, even academics, rather listen to pop than to any classical music. They do not even consider giving classical music an honest listen because they think it's just music for old and boring people.

I think this is in some way also evident in the Bubbles experiment where there was a strong bias against competent tonal music in favour of a child improvisation.

If hierarchies and biases would break down, that would mean that most people, regardless of their background, are open to both classical and popular music. And that musicians would integrate elements from both art forms in their music.

That would indeed be a good thing, but I absolutely don't see this happening. If anything we are farther away from this situation than ever.
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So as a alternative to the distinction between high and low genres its maybe a good idea to distinguish between serious and light forms.
To me personally the distinction was mostly based on the composer's musical education and knowledge. Most classical composers got extensive training in harmony, counterpoint, form and orchestration and also got knowledge of music history and studied the important works of the past. Usually this is evident in their music.

By contrast, I think most pop musicians knowledge in these areas tends to be relatively limited. It's just anecdotes, but I've known some pop/rock musicians and they had no idea what chromaticism or modulations are. When I once pointed out that he could also use notes outside of the key, he just said "but then it will sound all wrong!". etc. Also they tend to be, like most people, ignorant of the great works of the past (especially classical music).

To me this is one of the main aspects that forms the distinction.
Chromaticism exists in a Blues song, it is microtonal as well, and the melodies and rhythms cannot be accurately captured in standard music notation. The same can be said for a plethora of non-Classical musics.
I am perfectly aware of your examples, but they are not representative of contemporary pop music. I am not aware of any recent blues or flamenco hits (might be different in the US though). And the musicians I knew were playing the kind of pop you typically hear on radio these days.

I admit that I find a lot of older popular music much more interesting than the modern stuff, and I would personally even accept some of it as 'classical music', e.g. jazz.

Also, I thought that conservatory training nowadays includes blues and flamenco (I've certainly learned blues at music school).
Why are you limiting your scope to the most current Pop songs (this is not to say that even today's Pop songs are not monolithic and some are very creatively done)? I suggest you listen to Inara George's recording with Van **** Parks. I am sure it will fall outside the stereotype that is lodged in your brain.

Also, the discussion is only valuable to the extent all non-Classical musics are addressed.
But your example actually fits my personal definition of classical music - according to his wikipage Van **** Parks majored in music (he even studied with Aaron Copland) and he already performed in operas as a child (he even sang Schönbergs atonal music!). He is obviously musically highly educated and hence not exactly a counter example.
To the extent there has been a backlash against the idea of high art, it is a healthy reset of a obsolete set of assumptions.
But I think that the backlash against the idea of high art caused more damage than good. Popular music is anyways ubiquitous and enjoyed but lots of people, there's a reason it's called popular.

If you abolish the concept of high art, the result is that people will just listen to whatever music is easiest available / accessible to them and ignore classical music because, if all is equally good, why bother seeking out something else, especially if it requires more effort to appreciate?

So you gain nothing, but lose whatever influence classical music had.

Also, I think the artistic and technical horizon of musicians is becoming more narrow as a result, because if everything is equally good, the effort to educate yourself on music may be considered a waste of time.
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